Deadly Thai protests deepen democracy’s crisis of legitimacy
Bloody clashes between government troops and street protesters that left more than 20 dead this weekend have extended a four-year crisis of legitimacy in Thailand’s floundering democracy.
“Red shirt” leaders of the Thailand protests have sharpened their demands for political change by calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign and leave the country. The time for talking is over, they say.
Since last month, the group has been camped out in the Thai capital to press for new elections, and tens of thousands of protesters rallied again Sunday night at a barricaded site in the old city. Others have occupied a downtown shopping district for a week.
Government and military officials struck hawkish tones yesterday, blaming Thailand’s worst political violence in 18 years on agents provocateurs near the protesters’ lines. They gave little ground on reviving peace talks, instead focusing on the use of illegal weapons against their troops.
In turn, protesters seethed at what they view as an Army massacre of unarmed civilians and threatened to escalate their campaign, which has the blessing of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive from Thai justice who remains popular among rural and working-class voters.
Red Shirt leaders vowed to parade today the corpses of slain protesters around the politically divided capital. On Saturday night, two bodies draped in Thai flags were carried onto a rally stage and displayed to the crowd, alongside a stack of seized military equipment.
“Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, according to the Associated Press.
Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Abhisit, said the Red Shirts must stop their civil disobedience before political negotiations can resume. “If they’re still breaking laws on the streets, its difficult for him to sit down and talk,” he said in a press briefing inside an Army base.
Government officials had predicted that the protests would dwindle by Friday, the start of a weeklong New Year vacation. But a clash last week at Parliament prompted the declaration of a state of emergency that pushed the two sides toward confrontation. A humiliating rout on Friday for security forces who failed to defend a satellite station appeared to lead troops to stiffen their response Saturday, with tragic results.
The violence began after troops repelled an attack by protesters on an Army base and began to advance on a rally site, firing rubber bullets and tear gas to dispel protesters. But the troops gained little territory and failed to retake the site.
The fighting intensified after dark on narrow back streets, including an access road to Bangkok’s backpacker hub, where foreign tourists crouched in storefronts.
Mr. Panitan said shots were fired at retreating soldiers, who came under attack from grenades and homemade explosives. He said they fought back with rubber bullets and fired live rounds into the air, not directly into the crowd. This claim seemed at odds with gunshot wounds sustained by protesters near their barricades. Among the dead was a Japanese cameraman for Reuters who was shot through the chest.